The Georgian era stretched over a century (1714-1830) of Britain’s history, and as such, it has left behind reminders of the time in the shape of buildings, artwork, and literature that are still popular today. The literary works of this era were often a commentary on Georgian society; however, they could not show all aspects of life in this period, and the same can be said for popular television adaptations today. This article looks at Jane Austen’s television conversions and gives some context to the plot lines, especially the plot lines regarding women. Kate Wainwright explains.

Lady Catherine and Elizabeth from the novel  Pride & Prejudice . Image from the 1895 edition of the novel.

Lady Catherine and Elizabeth from the novel Pride & Prejudice. Image from the 1895 edition of the novel.

Part 1: Context

When thinking of the Georgian era, it is hard not to think of the architecture that still stands throughout Britain today – its neoclassical elements and sash windows. This period introduced the iconic townhouses, as well as a variety of civic buildings such as town and concert halls. The four Georges that reigned throughout this period, ruled over Jacobite rebellions intent on restoring the Stuart monarchy, the decline of autocracy which resulted in the Napoleonic wars and the loss of the American colonies, and the dissatisfied working class that was suffering from increasingly low-waged, manufacturing jobs and the fear of being replaced by machinery.

The Luddites were formed in response to the Industrial Revolution, the development of the manufacturing process changing from predominantly handmade, to machine produced. The revolution separated the social classes further, as it allowed the middle and upper classes to enjoy success due to the advancements in manufacturing, but those that were in the working class and below suffered greatly. Many found that their jobs had become more dangerous because of the new machinery - wages generally remained low. Those workers that had been replaced by machines moved to more urban areas to find work resulting in congested and unhygienic living conditions that were prone to disease – specifically cholera epidemics which would rampage through London’s ‘slums’ with abandon, before John Snow’s work in the 1850s. The Industrial Revolution meant that more factory-produced goods were being distributed which, unlike the lower classes, resulted in the middle and upper classes relishing in improved living standards and consumerism for a lower price. 

This period also boasted other advances in technology, such as the development of the steam engine and the introduction of the canal system to transport materials and goods to and from factories. The eighteenth century also excelled in and is famed for, its social activities, such as the theatre and ballet which was accompanied by purpose-built structures. The founding of the Royal Academy in 1768 encouraged artistry to develop and come to be admired. The art of writing also flourished during this time, allowing poets to explore Romanticism: this movement also spread to novelists that were now able to work with more exciting and mysterious storylines. The Georgian era was a time of great change and upheaval with wars and uprisings, and a revolution that changed the way Britain produced goods, affecting the entire population. This period was a perfect climate for the growth of art and creativity which can be seen in the enormous outpouring of paintings, literature and era-defining architecture that gives an insight into the people and issues of this era. Writer Jane Austen’s works were part of this defining movement. Born in 1775, Austen’s life mirrored that of the heroines in her novels. She was part of a close-knit family and had a romance with a man, Tom Lefroy, thought to be too wealthy and high up for someone of Jane’s social standing, being the daughter of a clergyman. Taking inspiration from her own life, Austen wrote and published her first four works anonymously, and her last two, Mansfield Park and Persuasion under her own name after she had died.


Part 2: Marriage

As her narratives revolve largely around the middle class and single young women, marriage plays a huge role in all of Austen’s novels. In Georgian Britain, as in the TV adaptations, a woman of a certain class remaining single for too long was seen as unfortunate and would affect her chances of marrying the longer it took. We can clearly see this reflected in the 1996 adaptation of Emma in the character of Miss Bates – kind but often silly, and viewed by the other characters with a kind of mocking pity. But there was also the matter of finance to consider, which the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995) portrayed well with the emphatic and easily panicked Mrs. Bennett. She constantly reminds her daughters that if they did not marry, they could be left penniless as their welfare would be left entirely up to their father’s nearest male relative, Mr. Collins. This storyline highlights perfectly the male-dominated society that Georgian women had to negotiate within. Although there were cases in which women could have their own fortune and property, this was only attainable if they were or had been married. Both adaptations for Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility portray this through Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs. Ferris, both grand and well-off widowed women. During this period, upon marriage husbands could arrange a settlement for their wives to live off. However, if a wife became a widow, quite often she would be reduced to poverty had a second allowance not been arranged at the husband’s discretion before his death or at the discretion of his male heir. The Dashwood family in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility illustrated this aspect of Georgian law: they had to rely on the kindness of their half-brother, John Dashwood, which did not amount to very much money in their case.

Often, married couples of this period were brought together because of a variety of scandals, for example, an accidental pregnancy. During this time, local parishes were charged with financially supporting single mothers, but with the passing of the 1733 Bastardy Act, single women were persuaded to declare the father of the baby. The two would then be pressured into marriage; in some cases, the parish would pay the man to go through with it. This particular topic was not touched upon in Austen’s converted works, but the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice did show an aspect of this when George Wickham sullied Lydia Bennett’s name and would only marry her after assuring he received a significant amount of money for doing so. This story line also highlights the 1753 Marriage Act that was intended to stop couples marrying without parental consent, therefore making inter-class marriage harder. However, some couples ran away to another country or to Gretna Green just over the border in Scotland, where parental consent wasn’t needed over the age of twelve years old for girls and fourteen years old for boys. It was the promise of an elopement that Wickham used to get Lydia to go with him, knowing all the while that he would not go through with it without the money. The 1995 version depicted their wedding in a more realistic way than it did her sisters’ wedding, as during this period wedding ceremonies were small and private, usually only including family and a few close friends and nearly always in the morning followed by a wedding breakfast. Thus, Jane and Lizzie Bennett’s double wedding portrayed in this adaptation was quite overcrowded compared to weddings of the time. The same can be said for the 1996 version of Emma.


Part 3: Class

Understanding the class system in Georgian Britain from watching television adaptations of Austen’s works is quite difficult, as the adaptations really concentrate on the middle class and above, which of course could be due to Austen’s target audience being these classes. That being said, the adaptations do highlight the inherent snobbery of Georgian society very well. Take for example the ITV adaptation of Persuasion (2007) in which Anne Elliot was pressured against marrying Fredrick Wentworth, a sailor in the British navy who was considered an unsuitable match for Anne given her father’s distaste for the navy, due to its tendency to raise men from lower classes to distinction through naval victories. This idea that there were disreputable men in the navy underlines the fact that men were often handed over to the navy by the public authorities instead of a jail sentence. Due to its massive size at this point, it was even common for men to be plied with alcohol and tricked into joining the navy; colloquially this was known as the ‘press-gang’. Furthermore, although the Georgian British Navy was incredibly strong, boasting naval victories over the French, a man was more respected among the landed gentry if he was born into his money and status, rather than working his way up. With the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, members of the middle class were rising and gaining prominence without inheriting their land and money. Thus, the snobbery shown by Sir Walter Elliot was not uncommon among members of the elite. This is shown again in Emma and her character’s thin tolerance of Miss Bates, being a poor spinster who lives with her mother. Emma is often praised for her charity towards the Bates family when she bestows her company upon them, often bringing food. This aligns with the growth of charity and philanthropy in the Georgian period. With the development of workhouses – ostensibly an institution designed to care for the poor – and encouragement from the Church, generosity towards the poor was quite common but could be proven to be superficial. Mansfield Park (2007) displays this attitude of tolerance and charity, with the wealthy Bertram family taking in their poor relative, Fanny Price. Her mother could no longer afford to keep her as she had married a poor sailor – yet another reference to the dim view that the upper classes held on those who crewed the navy. Although this act was charitable, Fanny was always reminded that she was from a poor family and should be grateful that the Bertrams had allowed her to live with them. In a way, the charity they gave only confirmed the class difference, a charity kept the classes in their respective spheres. It highlighted the fact that the upper class was providing, out of the goodness of their hearts, and the lower classes were dependent on and should be thankful for them.


Part 4: Skimming the Surface

Period dramas are an enjoyable way to get a feel for a time but understandably they only skim the facts and don’t delve into specific details. Jane Austen’s televised works wonderfully portray the novels they are based on but only show a light, audience-friendly version of the era in which they are set. The adaptations show a wishful idea of marriage as all the main characters manage to marry for love; however, due to certain laws and financial situations, many women were faced with loveless marriages, something which is explored in secondary plots within the narratives. Equally, although the Dashwood family survived virtually unscathed after their father died and they had to rely on his heir for money, many women were ruined and had to resort to other means, including the workhouse, to survive. The class division was a lot larger than represented in these adaptations, and unfortunately, it was a lot harder to marry across classes than is suggested in the television versions. So, although television adaptations do well in representing the Georgian wardrobe, research is advised for a more thorough knowledge of the time.


What do you think of television adaptions based on Georgian Era books? Let us know below.


Nicholas Rodgers, The Press Gang: Naval Impressment and its opponents in Georgian Britain (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2008)